California Cuts Water to Some Farms and Cities

Severe drought drives new restrictions on use of the Sacramento River.

Low water levels in Shasta Lake in northern California are a sign of the drought gripping the Sacramento River Basin, which has resulted in restrictions on water use.

Facing severe drought, California's state water board told hundreds of users of the Sacramento River, including farms and some small cities, that they must stop taking water from the river.

The notices are the first such mandatory restrictions of water rights in the state this year, though officials and experts predict that more tightening will be announced in the coming weeks.

The reason for the action is simple, says George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the state's water board: The Sacramento River watershed, which serves much of northern and central California, does not currently have enough surface water to provide for all registered water users.

That's why the board, in accordance with state law, began on Wednesday evening to issue notices to 2,648 holders of "junior water rights"—including many farmers and property owners and even some municipal water authorities—that they must stop using water from the river.

Larger cities like Sacramento are not currently affected by the restrictions because they control "senior water rights," according to the state's laws.

That situation could change, however. "Based on projections of the available water, we will continue to issue curtailment notices by priority," says Kostyrko. In other words, although the junior water rights holders are the first to lose their access, others might be affected if the drought worsens.

"It works both ways," Kostyrko notes. "We are also committed to lifting restrictions whenever possible, as quickly as possible, if there is more water available."

Peter Gleick, an expert on water issues at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, says the drought has "highlighted the mismatch between water supply and the water rights that have been allocated."

"I think this kind of curtailment has been a long time coming and in some ways is overdue," he says.

Kostyrko says the water board may be required to issue limits on water use in other watersheds around the state in the coming weeks.

That would make the current drought the most serious since 1976-1977, when numerous restrictions were in place. Curtailments were issued on a smaller scale in California in the late 1980s, and over the past 12 years in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers Delta.

Mt. Shasta Ski Park struggled this year thanks to low snowpack in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, which is the source of much of the state's water supply.

Who Is Affected?

Many different groups of people will see their water rights curtailed in the Sacramento Valley, says David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, which represents property owners and water agencies in the region. Farmers, duck hunting clubs, and small cities are among those affected.

"Most of the people who are going to get these notices aren't going to be surprised," says Guy.

Warnings were sent out to junior water holders in January that restrictions might be coming. And many of the people in the area recall the drought of the 1970s, or have family members who remember it.

"People get really creative in finding alternative supplies if they can," adds Guy. "It might be groundwater or transferring water from a neighbor to get by." 500

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